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Study:  Meditation Buffers Students Against Stress

By Maggie Barrett

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Photo by Jeff Watts

Transcendental Meditation (TM), a specific method of meditation, may be an effective non-medicinal tool for students to buffer themselves against the stresses of college life, according to new research conducted in part at American University.

The study “Effects of Transcendental Meditation practice on brain functioning and stress reactivity in college students” is published in the February 24 issue of the International Journal of Psychophysiology. It is the first random assignment study to explore the effects of meditation practice on brain and physiological functioning in college students.

The study was a collaboration between the Department of Psychology in American University’s College of Arts and Sciences and the Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition at Maharishi University of Management (MUM) in Fairfield, Iowa.

The study investigated the effects of 10 weeks of TM practice on “Brain Integration Scale” scores (broadband frontal coherence, power ratios, and preparatory brain responses), electrodermal habituation to a stressful stimulus, and sleepiness in 50 students from AU and other Washington, D.C., area universities.

Physiological and psychological variables were measured at pretest; students were then randomly assigned to a TM or control group. Posttest was 10 weeks later—just before final exam week. At posttest, the meditating students had higher Brain Integration Scale scores, less sleepiness, and faster habituation to a loud tone—they were less jumpy and irritable.

“The pressures of college can be overwhelming—44 percent of college students binge drink, 37 percent report use of illegal drugs, 19 percent report clinical depression, and 13 percent report high levels of anxiety,” said Fred Travis, lead author and director of the MUM brain research center.

Travis said the data from the non-meditating control group showed the detrimental effects of college life on the students. “The control group had lower Brain Integration Scale scores, indicating their brain functioning was more fragmented—which can lead to more scattered and disorganized thinking and planning. The controls also showed an increase in sympathetic reactivity and sleepiness, which can correspond to greater anxiety, worry, and irritability.”

In contrast, Transcendental Meditation practice appeared to buffer the effects of high stress.

“From pretest to posttest, Brain Integration Scale scores increased significantly, indicating greater breadth of planning, thinking, and perception of the environment. The sympathetic reactivity and sleepiness decreased among the TM group, which corresponds to greater emotional balance and wakefulness,” said Travis. “These statistically significant results among college students suggest that the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique could be of substantial value for anyone facing an intense and challenging learning/working environment.”

“For me the greatest benefit was being able to have these two 20-minute periods of meditation,” said one of the students in the TM group. While participating in the study, the student was carrying a full credit load, had an internship, and helped organize a large rally on campus. “I could feel my whole body releasing the stress of the day. When done, I felt rested and ready for more activity. TM helped me get through it all in a more healthy and balanced way.”